By Bishop Glenda Green, D.D. with Archbishop Larry Jensen, D.D., Ph.D
It is with great humility, in respect of this true privilege, that I present the history of Spiritis Church. For in so doing, I am presenting evidence of the Original Church of Jesus and the Apostles continuing to spread in yet another generation. This is a story as old as faith itself, moving through history in unbroken succession, one person at a time. This is not the story of institutional hierarchy and doctrine, although both of those powers were also important in shaping Christianity as we know it today. This is essentially the story of how the Jesus fellowship, known in his lifetime and for a generation beyond as “The Way” moved through history under the power of the Holy Spirit and Love regardless of — and often in spite of — institutional organization and issues of doctrine.
I was once asked by one of our seminary candidates why I wanted to “found” a new church at a time when religious conflicts were reaching a fever pitch and enlightenment had demonstrated that faith was the greater power over organization anyway. Stunned for a moment by her unexpected question, I paused to examine the truth of my position. Just as quickly I surprised myself with the answer. “I did not found a church. The Church “found” me!” Were this not the case, and were it not for the splendid education and guidance of Bishop Lee Petersen and Bishop Larry Jensen I would not be in this position of furthering an ancient and eternal work.
Even though I have been blessed with a sacred visitation by Jesus Christ on more than one occasion, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit many times, it would not have been my choice to serve their will through organized religious venues. Until the time that I was chosen for inclusion in the original apostolic succession I had envisioned my service to be loosely and specifically under the guidance of Love alone. Even when I was first invited to accept an Apostolic Vicarage to protect the new messages of Jesus, I accepted only out of respect for the honor that was being paid to the labors of my heart. I also reasoned that by way of fellowship with others of similar dedication I would receive support and perhaps a tempering discipline that could only strengthen my service. Otherwise, I would have continued as before, with a spirit of freedom under the guidance of Love. Little did I know at the time that this is exactly what Jesus originally ordained! Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I had been lifted into “The Way” and not consciously realized it.
When Jesus said to His Apostles, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to every creature,” he released them from all confining structures and commissioned them to serve with the utmost compassion, tolerance, and acceptance everywhere. This is a radical concept even now, but imagine the impact of such an instruction at a time when “The Way” was thought to be just another sect within Judaism! What happened in the succeeding 2000 years is a marvel and a miracle. Not every act within every chapter is something to be proud of, but the extraordinary victory of a small group of believers has changed the world. Not only did this faith surmount opposition from external forces, but also it resisted and survived the internal domination of corrupting structures. When Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” he was referring most intimately to the future destiny of his own following.
The triumph of Christianity has immense historical significance. It began with a small group of faithful men and women from the back waters of the Roman Empire and expanded so vigorously in three centuries that their beliefs permeated the whole Empire and somehow become the official religion. In fact, by the end of the 4th century, it was the only tolerated religion of the Roman Empire! That is a truly remarkable phenomenon. How it happened is not clearly known but is definitely a miracle of perseverance. We can clearly identify various stages on the path of Christianity, as it moved toward its ultimate victory. In its first stage, Christianity begins not as a religion, but as a movement of people around the man we call Jesus — a single charismatic teacher. He offered a love-directed, egalitarian worldview at a time in Jewish history when unification was imperative if destruction was to be avoided. Those who followed him had often had different opinions about who he was, but we know that he was generally regarded as a holy man by those who assembled in crowds to hear him speak or receive healing.
In the New Testament stories, it is clearly revealed that Jesus was preparing his disciples for a level of leadership and spiritual knowledge that was not yet revealed to the throngs of people who crowded to hear him speak. In one particularly direct statement, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables.” (Mark 4:11) Jesus was teaching within a Jewish context having ancient laws, teachings, and prophecies, a new way to spiritual fulfillment and to reunion with God. He had no intention of changing that foundation, but rather of fulfilling it through providing an expanded understanding and more compassionate applications of it to life. As his teachings gained more notice and his followers became more cohesive, this new power being unleashed first emerged as a sect within Judaism known as “The Way” or Ortha in Aramaic, the language that Jesus and his followers spoke.
The arrest and crucifixion of Jesus had a terrifying impact on his followers — especially the inner circle of Apostles. But of greater importance was the miracle of revelation that the resurrection gave them. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” With their typical worldly orientation, they asked him: “Will the kingdom of Israel be restored at this time?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Upon saying this, he ascended into Heaven. The Apostles walked back to Jerusalem, spending much time together in prayer to strengthen their unity. But overall, they were despondent with the loss of their beloved leader and somewhat unfocused. Jesus had taught them “a way” of living and worshipping, of valuing and serving, but after his apparent departure there was a great slack in the line, and they were sad.
The Apostles remained together as instructed, along with the women beloved of Jesus and his family. Then a miraculous event happened on the feast day of Pentecost, an agricultural festival celebrating and giving thanks for the “first fruits” of the early spring harvest. On that day, some fifty days after the resurrection and ten days after his ascension, the faithful in Jesus received the baptism of Holy Spirit as Jesus had promised. Through the fulfilling of his covenant, the First Church was born. This story may be found in the Book of Acts, Chapter 2. It reads as follows:
1. When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.
2. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
4. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.
6. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
7. Utterly amazed, they asked: Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?
8. Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?
9. Parthians and Medes and Elamites and those who live in Bet Nahrein, Judeans and Cappodocians and from the country of Pontus and Asia
10. And from the country of Phrygia and Pamphylia and Egypt and the countries of Libyans that are neighbors of Cyrenia, and those that came from Rome, Jews and adherents.
11. And those from Crete and Arabia, behold, we heard them speaking in our language, wonders of God!
12. Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13. Others, however, laughed at them, as they said, “They have had too much wine.”
14. Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you, who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.
15. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!
16. No, this is what the prophet Joel spoke:
17. ‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
18. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
By the power of the Holy Spirit the First Church was born. The event was so profound, and those who experienced it were so ecstatic that 3,000 more people were baptized and added to the followers of Jesus that day. With profound immediacy the Church of The Holy Spirit (Spiritus Sancti) was established.
This is the Church that would spread throughout the world. It would diversify greatly in the nature of service, acceptance, and inclusion. But two things were ever constant: there was reverence for the Holy Spirit, and all the sacraments that conveyed its presence and redeeming power. The love expressed and taught by Jesus was central to the message, which was retold endlessly in the stories of his life and resurrection. Though there was no official organization of the Church at this time, the Power behind it was known by all, and the remembrance of this Power threads its way through all the sacraments celebrated through all the ages: It was the Church of Spiritus Sancti, which is Latin for Holy Spirit.
Christianity did not start out as a unified movement. We have to remember that the disciples were probably dispersed at the very beginning. That was at a time before they knew themselves as Christians, before there were any fixed ideas about what Christian beliefs or rituals should be. There were no uniform requirements even about their perceptions of Jesus or what they should tell others about him. The sources that we have tell us that Christianity started as a multiform process, and the Church adapted as it moved into very different cultural and language contexts. In the first century we would be more correct to call it the Jesus movement. In the early days after his departure, the teaching began to organize and reorganize around his memory. The central theme was the resurrection. That profound miracle seems to have spread very quickly among his followers, but the earliest form of that movement was still thoroughly a sect within Judaism. He was a Jewish Messiah. They were followers of a Jewish apocalyptic tradition, and they were expecting the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.
The earliest congregations were probably small sectarian groups. At least one of them seems to be based in Jerusalem, and there were others as well spread throughout the countryside. In all probability there’s at least one or more in the Galilee. It is reasonable to believe that the earliest gatherings of people to celebrate Jesus’ memory and practice his teachings were really small pockets of communal support all focused on this identity of Jesus as the Messiah and the healing power of the Holy Spirit.
It’s hard to know, in all the cases, who the earliest group members were. We know a few names largely from the New Testament itself. In Jerusalem, James the brother of Jesus seems to have been the leader. There was a woman by the name of Mary in the Jerusalem congregation as well as Peter and some of the other original apostles of Jesus. Beyond that we know very few names. There were just small conclaves of people holding on tightly to their new beliefs and expectations while at the same time continuing in their Jewish tradition. The Jesus movement was at first a sect, and sects have an interesting behavior pattern. One of the things they must do is to distinguish themselves from their dominant cultural environment while remaining to some degree part of it. A sect always arises within a community with whom it shares a basic set of beliefs, and yet it needs to find some mechanism for identifying itself as different. The tension that arose from that was manifested in a variety of ways. There were controversies over belief and practice such as different ideas of purity and piety. But, another manifestation of tension was a restlessness and zeal to spread the message out, to hit the road, and to convince others that their version of the truth was better. What we would call evangelists today were called in those days “wandering charismatics,” traveling preachers and prophets who continued vigorously proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, apparently continuing the legacy of Jesus’ own preaching. They traveled around without money or extra clothes, performing miracles and healing the sick for free. They apparently begged for food or expected the charity of those who received them. This is a different picture than what we’ve come to expect from the pages of the New Testament and yet, it’s within the tradition itself. Even Paul reports that he encountered people who came from Judea with a different kind of gospel message. Variety—not conformity—was the typical presence of early Christianity.
This runs contrary to the view that mainstream Christianity has always, understandably, wanted to convey. That is, at the beginning there was only clarity and conformity of belief—that only gradually, under outside influences, did heresies arise and conflict emerge. One of the most challenging aspects of modern historical scholarship is precisely that easy answers elude us. The harder we work to determine the first moment when Christianity was unified and everything was clear, the more we must realize that the only true unity the Church has ever known is the person of Jesus Christ himself and the power of the Holy Spirit.
“The Way” was propagated through the service of love and development of communities with a strong will to find liberation and deliverance from Roman oppression. The voice of freedom would always be strong within it. Their desire for liberation and their spirit of caring seemed to defy conformity. On the contrary it created a turn of heart and mind infinitely adaptable to the many cultures it would enter and infuse with its spirit.
Invisibility was the greatest ally of the early congregations, a sense of community was their greatest strength, and conviction in deliverance was their driving force. Therefore, “The Way” had little need for naming itself, and congregations rarely considered their collective unit to be a “church.” “The Way” was a sect within Judaism, and it considered its greatest value to be the fulfillment of messianic prophecy. For this reason, it upheld the greater good of Israel. They were united in Spirit — Spiritus Sancti — but the congregations would not commonly refer to themselves as “Christians” until after the burning of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 AD.
Ironically, the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem created a new opportunity. For a short while, it was safer to be a “Christian” than a Jew! There was a need for distancing and protection, and it was in this pursuit that congregations first began to use openly the word Christian. But, I am moving ahead of the story. To understand the origins of the word “Christian” and its full impact, we need to first look at the contributions of Paul and the Apostolic movement in general.